Failure Judo: Be Meta

Part 8 of the Failure Judo Series

Metacognition, in its simplest terms, means “thinking about thinking”.  Jocko Willink, in some of his writing on leadership as a Navy SEAL, talks about it as “stepping back” from the line of fire during a firefight.  Even though our natural tendency in many situations where success is vital is to fully engage in the activity at hand, doing so can sometimes prevent us from doing the sort of analysis that will make us successful at that activity.  Willink says that as a SEAL team leader, when he steps back from the line of fire, he is able to see the figure picture, and get a better view of what’s going on, what needs to happen, and the dangers that exist.

When we are trying to accomplish something, whether it is a high probability of failure, or even something that we have failed at already, there is tremendous value in “stepping back”, pausing, and looking at the bigger picture.  Here are some guiding questions:

1. What factors in success/failure do I have control over?
2. What factors in success/failure do I not have control over?
3. What emotions am I feeling, and how do those manifest as physical feelings?
4. What is the worst case scenario?
5. What are the key elements of success here?
6. Can there be a partial success?  What does that look like?
7. In terms of my own growth, what should I be paying attention to as I act?
8. Are there any factors that I can set beforehand to increase my chances of success?

Failure Judo: Tinker

Part 7 of the Failure Judo Series

Hands down, the best way to learn how something works is through a process I like to call tinkering.  “Tinkering” is an ability we are all born with, but it is taken away from us as we grow older by nervous adults and other authority figures who are worried about breaking things or messing things up, and through shame and bad logic, pass those worries on to us.

Sometimes called “hands on learning” or “experiential learning”, tinkering allows us to explore, try things out, and see connections between parts.  We learn about the thing we are tinkering with, but we also learn a myriad of other things – how to use our hands, tools, and properties of different materials.  In science, the term “scientific method” is used to make tinkering sound like something educated people do and to make it ok, but the process is the same:  Ask a question, form a hypothesis, test hypothesis, repeat.

Babies do almost all of their learning through tinkering.  They grab things, eat things, touch things, push and pull, slap and pound.  They develop a basic understanding of the world by interacting with it, which is much more useful and efficient than the adult method:  Think about it, stare at it with trepidation, and then ask if anyone knows the right answer. 

I’d like to encourage us all to embrace failure in this specific way.  Get your hands dirty, and play with things.  Take them apart and put them back together.  I’m not suggesting that you do something dangerous or cause permanent, irreversible damage.  However, there is a definite time for tinkering.  I used to let my kids take apart old TVs or electronic components when they stopped working, just so they could use the tools and see how everything worked.  The principle here is that we should try to tinker with things whenever we can reduce the cost of failure to very little, or lost zero — It’s a great way to learn and sharpen your skills.

Another example of tinkering that I use is in programming.  While I do some professional software development, when I am trying to learn a new technique, I often test it by creating a game or “just for fun” app.  There is no pressure that way, and I get a good feel for the new tool or technique before I have to use it in the “real world”.

The next time you are faced with something new, I encourage you to think about how you can tinker with it — remove the fear of failure, and play with it.  Engage in some purposeful messing around.  I think you’ll be happy you did.

Part 7 of the Failure Judo Series

Failure Judo: Practice

Part 6 of the Failure Judo Series

Watch this video of Michael Phelps swimming the 200M Fly at the Olympics:

Now watch this video of Olympic Figure Skater, Alina Zagitova:

Skilled swimmers and figure skaters aside, have you ever tried any of these things?  If you’d like to experience failure, then go ahead and try one (maybe depending on your climate).  Go ahead and do it – I’ll wait.

So… How’d that go?  Good?  I doubt it, but if it did go well for you, and you aren’t an experienced swimmer or skater, then you probably just found your calling in life.  If you are anything like me (and almost everyone), you didn’t look like Phelps or Zagitova.

“Of course I didn’t — I’ve never even practiced before.”

A normal, obvious response… in this context.  But in so many areas of our life, we expect to rise above failure without the practice, and without the time invested.  Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule – the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of doing something to become an expert in that thing – applies to all of the things we do.  Now clearly we only have time in our lives to become experts in a few things, or maybe just one thing.    However, the point still stands that practice is how we often get better.

So what’s that got to do with failure?  What is “practice”, except guided, mindful, repetitive failure (usually with some safety precautions)? If you can figure out what you want to get good at, and find a way to practice failing, all the while paying attention to what you do that works and doesn’t, and maybe get a little guidance from a “coach”, then your chances of not failing when it really matters go through the roof.

Part 6 of the Failure Judo Series

Failure Judo: Reframe the Experience

Many times the fear or shame of failure is worse than the failure itself.  By reframing the experience, we can sometimes reduce the fear of failure beforehand.  Applied after the fact, reframing can help us focus on deriving maximum benefit from a shameful or embarrassing failure.  This shift in mindset hinges on our ability to look at an experience not as a do-or-die opportunity to prove our worth, but rather a learning opportunity, or change to stretch ourselves.  If we examine our lives closely, there are many more opportunities to learn than there are truly critical situations in which our future depends on our success.  It’s true — not everything can be a learning opportunity.  But we can learn to shift our mindset away from the “everything is critical” view that naturally comes to many of us, allowing ourselves the freedom and space to learn and grow through our experiences and especially our failures.

Failure Judo: Manage Loss

Part 3 of the Failure Judo Series.

If you spend a little time researching the strategies and ideas of many of the world’s most successful investors, you will see a pattern emerge.  That pattern isn’t luck, or a nose for great opportunity.  Instead, that pattern is a well-developed system of managing loss or risk.  In other words, some of the world’s greatest investors got to where they are by making sure that when they do fail, they don’t take too big of a hit.

Employing this strategy in your own life is pretty simple.  We shouldn’t be afraid to take risks, but when we do take risks we should do what we can to remove the sting of failure’s consequences.  By doing so, we can save our resources to make more attempts, and we can worry less and focus more on the task at hand.  Here are a couple of ideas to mitigate the risk as you reclaim failure:

1.  Plan ahead.  A good plan looks at what can go right, what can go wrong, and prepares us to deal with both.

2.  Try to study some similar situations where the person failed at the thing you are trying to do.  See how they failed, and also what they did to survive the failure.

3.  Think “insurance”.  You might not be able to buy insurance for everything you want to do in life, but many times there are ways to insure ourselves in the case of loss.  The principle here is to ask, “What can I pay a small amount up front to protect me from a big loss later?”

4.  If you can’t mitigate the risk, then either find a way to be ok with the loss, or find another approach.  Sometimes it’s more important to live to fight another day.

Part 3 of the Failure Judo Series.

Failure Judo: Take Incremental Steps

Part 3 of the Failure Judo Series.

I think it’s pretty normal, when we think about growth in areas that are important to us, to envision bold, big moves.  Sometimes, it’s this image we have of ourselves succeeding in big ways that works against us making changes and moving forward.  The very idea of making big changes, of taking huge risks and failing in that context can prevent us from even trying.

Do we really need to make big moves to grow and progress?  I think the answer is “no”.  In fact, I think making big moves, in many cases, isn’t even the most effective way to make progress.  Take this video by skateboarder Isamu Yamamoto, for example.  

Clearly, the tricks and movements he makes took years to master.  Nobody who watches this routine would believe that the routine was created as a single unit, in its entirety.  Likely, Mr. Yamamoto learned each trick and movement as a singular unit, and created this routine by stringing them all together.  While the things we want to accomplish aren’t always so easily broken down into component parts, with a little thought and planning, we can usually find some ways to “baby step” toward our goals.

The advantage of this, of course, is that if or when we fail, we (1) fail in smaller ways, with (hopefully) smaller drawbacks/consequences, and (2) by focusing on small parts, we can direct our energy to mastering more specific aspects of the problem – just like Mr. Yamamoto.

There are two different approaches to breaking things down into smaller steps or incremental risks.  The first, I’ll call segmentation.  In this approach, we might break down different elements of the challenge and then once mastered independently, we reassemble them into a whole which is much more attainable.  An example of this might be an obstacle course.  If we take the time to practice and learn each obstacle on its own, we have the opportunity to focus our effort and attention on the needs of each one.  Once mastered, we will be more ready to tackle the whole thing.

The second approach to incremental risk could be called iteration or progression.  This is more appropriately used when the pieces of a bigger goal are better or even required to be completed in order, starting at the beginning.  The key to using this strategy is our ability to fail at any point in the progression, and still return to the beginning to start again.  In many cases, this is achieved by lowering the stakes for failure (see Failure Judo: Practice later in this series).  As example of this might be the learning and performance of a piece of music.  While you can rehearse segments of music, there is some value to the continuity and context of an earlier part in learning a later part.  However, to lower the stakes of failure, we might rehearse the piece without any kind of audience, so we can fail without consequence.  More on managing risk tomorrow in Failure Judo: Manage Risk.

Part 3 of the Failure Judo Series.

Failure Judo: Fail on Purpose

Part 2 of the Failure Judo series.


I’m supposed to fail? On purpose?

Why in the world would anyone fail on purpose?

The answer to this can be found in sayings like “Its Bark is worse than its bite.”  The intent of sayings like this is to remind us that often, our fear of an outcome is worse than the outcome.  Unfortunately, the best way of discovering the impact of an outcome is to actually experience it.  On the other hand, however, when we do fail, we often discover that the thing we tried so hard to avoid, which messed with our heads and stole our concentration from the task itself, wasn’t so bad after all.

Now, before you go doing anything crazy, here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. Before you undertake anything, make sure that the consequences of failure aren’t going to be devastating, dangerous, or beyond the scope of what you are willing to accept.  

2. If you can, then take precautions to mitigate risk.  For example, a skateboarder trying a new trick might put on a helmet and protective gear.  A trapeze artist often uses a safety net for training in relative safety.

3. Once you have settled #1 and #2 above, go ahead and fail.  Don’t say you’re going to fail, and then try not to.  Go ahead and fail.  Time and time again, I’ve seen skateboarders who are new to a big ramp climb to the top, and simply slide down on their knees, or drop in on their skateboard and bail.  As soon as they do, they know the limits of the ramp.

By focusing your energy and thoughts on the failure – how it looks and feels, and how you can make it better for yourself – you can free yourself on the next attempt to focus on success.  The legendary Japanese Archer, Awa Kenzo, famously made his students fire at useless targets that were impossible to miss for four years before moving on to real targets.  The point of this exercise was to focus them on the process of shooting.  The placing of the arrow on the string, their grip, posture and so on.  Failing on purpose can have a similar effect — by removing the focus on the end product, we are free to focus on the process of what we are doing, which has the effect of …

…improving the end product.

Read the rest of the Failure Judo series.